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The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
A piece of vapid schlock riding the tide of catchy previews.
This movie has nothing more to do with exposing a "secret life of pets" than any of the dozens of other movies with talking animals. It's just another uninspired "quest to save the missing animal" movie.
Characters are one dimensional. The plot and the antagonists are totally contrived and flimsy. The old cliche's of "girl is tougher than she looks", and "never noticed the true love next door" are sprinkled in between jokes that stereotype cats as stuck up and anti-social, dogs as dumber than squirrels, and people - where to start with the people - every human character in this film is so underdeveloped that they make Andy in Toy Story 1 look like Hamlet.
These prop extra humans exist in a total fabrication of reality where a 20-something who dresses like she might be a day care worker or a dental hygienist can afford and apartment in Manhattan a dog, AND brings home dog number two without a second thought. Cost of owning a 100 lb. dog in NYC - oh, who cares, it'll all work out.
Kids will like this movie, but they'll "love" pretty much any movie with cute talking animals. Save your money on this film and expand their view of movies with a classic "getting home" movie like "Homeward Bound" instead...
The Scorch Trials (2015)
From innovative story to just more zombies and political dystopia
Other reviewers have remarked as well that this second film is a far cry from the first, in plot, characters, pacing, and completeness.
To join in that chorus, I would go further to say that Scorch Trials lacks even one single shred of the the originality of Maze Runner. The first movie takes quasi-utopian glade of boys at the heard of a maze patrolled by monsters. To the thinking viewer, the scenario might conjure up the minotaur maze and its use as a convenient disposal for King Minos's enemies, with a completely original take on the idea.
Continuing the post-Harry Potter / Hunger Games tradition, the film-makers / writers are not content to leave you with a single great film / story... it has to be monetized into an ongoing asset. The Scorch Trials shows us what was behind the curtain after the magic show is over - and its the hackneyed go-to scenario of raging zombies and bad guy biotech corporations (an idea that hasn't been fresh since Alien). With tweens who vacillate between intolerable self-importance and short sighted whiny-ness.
The idea of harvesting special chemicals from these kids falls right in line with central reveal of The Island, or even more directly, harvesting of children's brain enzymes in the the world of The Dark Tower.
And zombies. Would you like to see 28 days later remade with "special" tweeny-tennies? These are no "slow mutant" zombies mixed in here and there... we're talking about most of the film with nothing but raging, undifferentiated zombie hordes. That was fresh back when Disney made a film adaptation of Haunted Castle, but even then they knew to keep it to <5 minutes of the film... and limit the amount of CGI. Now CGI is cheap, so expect it to be used liberally - need some action? The zombie horde 3-d models have already been bought and paid for in chase scene 2. Let's just use them again in the other chase scenes! Now it's certainly still possible to come up with a "thinking man's zombie movie". Life After Beth jumps to mind. And maybe we'll be subjected to the "my GF is turning zombie" angle in film 3, but I doubt it will be anything new and refreshing. More like a way to cobble in some of the Twighlight "OMG, you're a monster" garbage.
Speaking of romance, this film even manages to toss in a teen love triangles for good measure... or at least some soap opera esque drama that passes for a teen love triangle. Females, particularly latinas, will leave the theater buzzing: "OMG, that bitch! I knew Thomas was too good for her! He needs to hook up with Rosa Salazar!"
Sorry I just can't resist also poking a little fun at this films blatant attempt to provide a "racial rainbow" of heros and heroines. While somehow the first movie managed to imbue the multi-cultural posse with a more than passably realistic chemistry, this second film simply feels like they went to the race grab-bag for the hero's, and went to Uncle Whitey's Cracker Casting agency for the bad guys. Not what ruined the film for me, but just sayin'...
I didn't read the book. I don't read "teeny-tweeny" fiction books because I expect them to be crammed full of this kind of garbage. But apparently from other reviews, the book was a lot better than the film. So my advice, save two + hours of your life and skip this film. If you were left enthralled by the first film as I was, maybe try the book instead...
Inside Out (2015)
NOT an age appropriate film - psychiatric critique
I declined to bring my two daughters, age 5 and 10, to this film during its theater run, despite much pleading from them under the influence of the Disney marketing machine.
Yesterday I rented it and screened it myself before letting them see it. Today it is going back to the video store and my kids will not be watching it until they have taken psychology 101 and can weigh its value-driven abstractions from the distance of understanding, rather than with the emotionally-infused closeness of self-identification.
A relative tried defending the movie to me by pointing out the theme is about compassion, and that there is nothing "wrong" with sadness. In as sense, this boils down to the old time-worn phrase "it's OK to cry". But nowhere does crying or sadness in this movie play the role of a release. In contrast to Anger, who builds up and explodes like a pressure cooker, sadness doesn't overflow like a bathtub or even crumble like a dam... sadness in this film lurks like a fat, nerdy misfit, subverts happiness every chance she gets, taints memories, and ultimately serves no purpose in terms of emotionally righting the ship other than drawing in sympathy and attention from "nice people".
This view of human psychology has the typical but subtle anti-male bias. Mom's head, apparently with sadness front and center, is able to marshal measured responses of empathy, while dad's head is filled with one-dimensional mustachios bullied by anger, whose raison d'etre is ostensibly to man-up watching contact sports and to issue knee-jerk "go to your room" manifestos. I mean I understand it would be too much for a society that over-obsessed with being nice to explore in film the role that aggression plays in developing self-esteem from a healthy 11-year-old boy's perspective, but seriously? Instead, we get a highly inaccurate generalization that the journey from childhood to adolescence is accompanied by a melancholy shift in perspective based on the loss of childhood innocence. That may be part of the maturing process, but it certainly isn't the equilibrium most people operate under.
No, the portrayal of sadness in this film is not the sadness of mourning and loss that people learn to compartmentalize when they have, for example, lost a best friend. It is the portrayal of an unchecked festering sadness. Attempts by joy to compartmentalize sadness are portrayed in this film as childish, insensitive, counterproductive, and even foolish. In an 11 year old, this kind of emergent sadness smacks of precursors to teen depression. Yes, believe it or not, the current standard of psychiatry in the US is to diagnose children as young this protagonist with depression and get out the prescription pad and the Prozac.
As the theme of the film acknowledges, sadness is interpreted as a call out for help. But with psychotherapy on the wane, for a happy child who suddenly exhibits lingering sadness, a trip to a doctor is going to end with meds being prescribed. And as far as the film's solution - not only do none but the most emotionally supported of children always get the "shoulder to cry on" or sympathetic ear to talk to then need, but, frankly, it's not always as simple as mom or dad doling out hugs or providing time to listen. As one parody mocked, this film parades around a thinly veiled case of a child experiencing schizophrenic and bipolar episodes. You can't cure that with hugs, home-brew psychotherapy and a feel good ending.
In the end, I would view this film as totally inappropriate for children who are old enough to "appreciate" the message of the film and to empathize with the emotions of the protagonist. For most children under 4, this film will be nothing more than another light and color show of funny characters doing silly things. For adults, it may be a key that can turn on those restrained tear-ducts for a few moments of satisfying catharsis.
Nonetheless, I strongly discourage this film for school age children, especially girls in the 10 - 16 year old range (but really any child whose life has been affected by a pronounced source of sadness - e.g., loss of a parent or someone close, becoming homeless, loss of a pet, etc.)
As a didactic device reminding parents to hug their children when they are sad, the film is OK. For children who feel tinges of sadness as they transition out of childhood to adolescence, the film may achieve the goal of explaining that these feelings are normal. But at the same time the film undermines the healthy process by which those transient feelings are brought into check with new touchstones of identity filled with joy that involve creation of happy memories as tween-teen's in whatever changed circumstance they find themselves. And as a vehicle for the validation of pronounced, enduring sadness in tween-teens, the film is downright misleading and inaccurate. The child who gives in to letting sadness control their life is very likely to end up being labeled "depressed", and instead of more hugs and time with mom and dad, what they can expect is a bottle of pills and daily trips to the nurse's office to ingest them.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Why do movies like this seem to think CGI -> no soul?
Watched this movie back-to-back with the 1990's original today. Could not help feeling betrayed, the way I feel betrayed when I watch the Transformers movies, or those other "super hero" movies that seem to go from good to bad (remember Batman & Robin? Spiderman 3? Superman IV?) What this movie did to deserve 2 (as opposed to 1) stars: realistic, beautifully rendered turtle ninja's with a distinct "hard core" visual feel appropriate to the 21-st century of xBox One and PS4.
What this movie did to deserve no more than 2 stars: a story centered on long boring "wow" effects driven battle sequences that actually put me to sleep. A plot that skips ahead with lurches that rival Transformers - Dark of the Moon. Complete absence of "turtle identity"... don't even think they said "Kawabonga". In the 90's movie, they were producing an homage to a cultural icon TV cartoon. April had her trademark yellow raincoat, the turtles reveled mightily in their pizza moments, and they were cast as a bunch of joke heroes who were unbeatable: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Hero's in a Half-Shell. Ridiculous but fun to watch not because you worried about whether shredder would gas the world with red Anthrax, but because these misfits had so much fun kicking shredder's but all over the place. Like watching Howard the Duck shred on guitar. And in this last aspect, the 1990's film departed a bit from the light-hearted feel of the cartoon to take on a dramatic "big screen" edge, but supplanted the main themes with comic and romantic elements with the Casey Jones character. Generally acceptable.
This 2014 movie appears to have been conceived around the high-stakes action drama concept from the start. There is very little fun. The turtles get their buts kicked all over the place. The foot clan, instead of being a bumbling gang of martial-arts also rans, turned into those generic AR toting bad guys you blast away in name-your-video-game without a second thought.
What you do get is a lot of eye-candy for the I-Max / 3-D HD screen. At bottom, it's the "immersive" tent-ride at the county fair where they used to project a first person roller coaster ride onto a curved sheet and everyone said "wow" and left feeling a little dizzy, only now it's been run through a battery of GPU's to bear hardly any adherence to actual laws of physics. In the middle of any one of these battles, they could have cropped out those beautifully rendered turtles and put in four transformers - that's how fungible the action and dialog are.
Sad. Could you imagine in the 80s equating Transformers with TNMT? Please Hollywood, pay more attention to who you put in charge of these projects.
The Last Chase (1981)
An interesting testament to perenial political fears
Not many folks today go around thinking about Barry Goldwater's slogan from the 1964 Republican convention. I wasn't even alive then, but as a child who spent more than a few sick days with a TV, a VCR, no cable, and a couple Uhf bootleg movies, one of them "The Last Chase", I understood that even though "extremism in the defence of virtue" may not be a vice, I could tell you at age 8 that it was a bad policy to follow.
Others have noted the various issues that come up in this movie. The energy crisis that isn't solved by new technology, but by the iron fist of regulation. Social control achieved through restriction of movement and herding people into cities. "Re-education" as a stand in for jail. Devolution of government into authoritarianism. An Ebola like plague laying waste to America.
These issues get paraded through the plot in a pretty clear black-and-white line up. Fast cars = good. Government bureaucrats = bad. And for that reason, this film has largely been written off as a mere adventure film, one that stacks up poorly against its contemporaries. But strip away the zooming car shots and barrel rolling areal sequences, and you get something that is a little bit GATACA, a little bit Vanishing Point, but with a very 1980s Reaganesque ideology.
You also have a few shallow side plots that are meant to break up the diadacticism. The creation of a father-son bond. The hopelessness of losing your purpose in life. The emotional baggage of causing a fatal crash, or losing your loved ones to premature disease.
Today all those things would be played out with color filters and weeping string accompaniments-over-dialuage that are the hallmark of post LORT "adventure" films. Back then, that was out of the question. Protagonists like square jawed Lee Majors looked you squarely through the camera lense and gritted out lines like "I've done a lot of losing in my life; I don't want to lose you too." All actor. Maybe not the best actor, but no fluffy BS. Solid performances by Majors and Meredith here, and nothing but praise for George Touliatos's Hawkins. Performances backed up, not tread upon, by a rich and powerful musical landscape which is, in my opinion, Gil Melle's best.
The story is simple: a man and a boy on the road, the latter there to expose the complex layers of the protagonist's character. Today, the story would be about a bunch of tweeny kids wrestling with themselves through emotional full-nelsons that would put Hulk Hulgan to shame. Got to play to the youth market if you want box-office $$$.
All I can say it, the conflicts in this movie make it well overdue for a remake, but thankfully the wrong people haven't made one. Redone in the minimalist style of "Road to Paloma", the 917 CanAm Spyder could come roaring to life again for an epic remake, but probably end up a commercial flop. Redone with typical Hollywood sensibilities (I'm thinking "Rollerball" now), it would still be a commercial flop. So there it is... if the film sounds interesting to you, nothing for it but to start looking through those crates of VHS bootlegs at the next yard sale you drive by... until, that is, the oil runs out.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
More allegorical meaning than you can fit in a box
The film Boxtrolls is so jam packed with themes that cut to the core of our society that you might expect it to be cobbled together, choppy, overreaching, and pretentious. It is, in fact, none of those things.
A thoroughly entertaining, not too cerebral, romp down one box conveyor after another, the film succeeds at wrapping it's central theme of persecution and prejudice in layers of equally significant ideas: group self-identification, class ambition, dalliant obsessions, self-esteem, and self-destructive addiction. It follows a nicely predictable plot arc that will satisfy your children while you ponder whether the plucky heroine's ostensible obsession with the macabre is likely a reflection of a Freudian complex with roots in her father's indifference. The bad guy with his crooked teeth and greazy hair is unmistakably evil. But at the same time the good guys aren't wearing the white hats. In fact, it's comparing and poking fun at both incompetence and maliciousness.
The animation finds it's grounding in a setting that is reminiscent of Corpse Bride. From the industrial green palate of the box trolls to the stiff and starched characterization of the patrician class, the visual design of the film holds together well.
After the film you'll walk out of the theater with lots of things on your mind, but you won't be walking out with a child who was bored to sleep or fits by another didactic feature of animated hogwash. That is an impressive achievement for any film.
Road to Paloma (2014)
Indie-style subterranean tension with a lighthearted face. *spoilers*
Road to Paloma and Joe, with Nicholas Cage, deal in essential the same moral dilemma, do modern laws do a better job at effecting justice than the suppressed truth that the weak are meat and the strong do eat (to quote the homo-erotic, black-sploitation, trekian dud that was Cloud Atlas).
But whereas Joe put the face of an irascible, end-of-his rope, sexually impotent, dead-end trailer park inhabiting, tree killing tough guy on the 11th hour self destructing deliverer of justice, Road to Paloma shows us a life-loving, even tempered, resourceful, smiling, respectful young Adonis running with the wind. Both are in for the same fate, but for Robert Wolf, it comes directly courtesy of the government. Joe is just unable to fight the "good" fight because of the local Sheriff, who in turn, is a pretty likable fellow. And in Paloma we have the same idea of the local federal officer who "get's it", but this time he has to serve the big-bad bogeyman from Washington.
Then there the small matter of whether in your image of unfettered masculinity, your preferences tend to a salt-of-the-earth GMC truck or a vintage Harley with a suicide shifter. The riding scenes in Paloma certainly channel Easy Rider. Yet this film possibly does a better job of capturing real fraternal bond between riding buddies Cash and Wolf than the overly simplistic Fonda-Hopper "tripping balls and gross fornication" stuff that played well in the 60s, but seems sort of bizarre and pointless in a smelly-hippy way in 2014. Whereas we are pretty sure Robert Wolf and Cash bedding down on the open road smell like John Wayne's leather chaps on the cattle trail, we think Fonda and Hopper probably smell like a couple of gross guys with really bad BO who bath in a lake by the side of the road once a month.
In fairness, Paloma is not likely to play well with the Sons of Anarchy fans. Not enough illicit crime and subterfuge. Not enough killing. Nor is it likely to win over the American Chopper / Biker Buildoff folks, who will no doubt scratch their heads at how you fix a radiator on a broken down Chevy with parts you've got stashed away in your saddlebags. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable film, with perhaps one to many landscape backdrop shots, implausible plot timing, and a highly unsatisfying ending.
Speed Racer (2008)
Definitely worth seeing / not a "weak franchise tie-in"
I caught this on video last night... most certainly it was NOT the weak franchise tie-in/prequel/etc. as suggested by the razzie nomination.
Poor tie-in's vs. well done tie-in: look at the two "Hulk" movies... the one from 2008 has the whole back story in the opening credits, then moves on to telling a story that is interesting and entertaining. The Ang Lee one trips all over itself sorting through the rich and often inconsistent source universe trying to piece together a coherent backstory and conflict, accomplishing not much other than telling the audience things that are not important or that it already knows, and you end up with a boring disappointment of a film that basically lives or dies on its CGI "wow" factor. (Cf. The Punisher vs Iron Man).
Speed Racer covered its whole back story in the first race sequence. The sequence shifts during that race were genius. The connection to the source material was accomplished not by nit picking through content of the source, but by duplicating motifs and tone (costuming, color, character behavior, etc. etc. true to the original stuff). This movie belongs up there with Sin City in that regard.
Unfortunately, the visual effects sequences also went as over the top in the "seizure inducing flashing lights" department as you would expect from a one legged film that can only stand on its CGI. I honestly had to ask if some of the track racing scenes were lifted out of a direct to DVD (or more often "made for cable") Hot Wheels Racer cartoon which end up being the bonus prize when you mail in the proofs of purchase from five boxes of co-co puffs. Maybe that was intentional, a backhanded salute to the social status of the source material. But my criticism here was only present in the track race action sequences, and the film made up for it by its fresh use of other forms of visual storytelling. (One of my favorites is the exaggerated sequence where Pops does some butt-kicking).
Parents be warned: due to the spasmatic virtual camera work during the race action, I would expect a child who has not been weened on PS3 and X-Box to watch this movie and have complete visual process overload, resulting in them climbing the walls and destroying much furniture (ironically, there is an actual scene in the film where the mother asks the kid watching TV: is that the same nothing you are doing that broke my last couch?) However, this is a film worth checking out.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
So much better than 2!!!
If you want to know how to doom a Marvel franchise to three with smashing success at the box-office, watch X-3. If you want to know how to come back from a big-turn out, too much sappy music, too much Hamelet-esquire pontificating on love and identity, too much screen time given to Gee-Wiz comic-science, and not enough bad-guy action, and hit a home run, Spiderman 3 is the answer.
The movie was genuinely fresh. The bad guys were complex and yet simple, in a way that made the poignant image of a number tattooed on Magnetos arm look flat. And the special effects were extraordinary. I'm not just talking about eye candy that shows up in every sci-fi movie and TV show now. There is a rapid decent free fall with full on fist fighting so complex and realistic, I can only imagine what it looked like in I-Max. The sandman special effects during the armored car fight were extraordinary. The funny business of strutting down the sidewalk in New York, or the enthusiastic french waiter were all employed to add some levity to what otherwise typically ends up a formulaic super-hero exercise of (1) Tell Good Guy's Story/Make him good (2) Introduce Bad Guy/make him bad (3) Make them Fight.
Part of this film was shot in Cleveland, but the visuals from New York were extrodinarily well placed ... and I don't mean an obligatory shot of the Chrysler building or the Empire State. There are shots of the top of the AT&T building casually woven into the background. There is the partial destruction of the Fisher building by a crane. Probably only New Yorkers and architectural fans will get these images, but it shows great attention to detail.
One criticism: it runs a little long. Cut action, and it would have dragged like Spidey 2. Cut the interludes with the singing and dancing, and it would have failed to impress on the order of X3. The one thing that could have been cut were the sappy scenes with Aunt Mae. Her presaging the difficulty between Peter and MJ, was completely unnecessary - it's a story that can tell itself.
Visual effects a la PS2
This movie looks like something for PS2. While these cheesy CGI cars and robots might fly for an interactive game, it makes the movie hard to watch. I cannot even guess what people were thinking when this film was given any visual effects award. The machines look like they were skinned without a dent or nick or rust (IMHO the robots in the short included on the DVD looked more realistic than the ones in the actual movie - if they couldn't afford good color CGI in the production, then the whole movie should have been black and white!) I borrowed this DVD from the library for free and that was a waste! As mentioned by others, the plot is pathetic - not enough structure to carry the story, and basic inconsistencies in the flow of events (for example, why did they trace a signal back to the middle of nowhere when the controler of the robots was clearly not there!) Don't waste your time on this "blockbuster".